The Nun is a low point in what was a solid horror franchise

Interchangeable nuns and an awful so-called Québécois character make this Conjuring prequel barely tolerable.

Taissa Farmiga in The Nun

Despite a strong cast and a lot of promise, The Nun fails to capture what makes the best entries in the Conjuring franchise work. The film’s primary failure lands at the story level, which fails to edge vulnerability out of the characters. Whereas the other films in the franchise build suspense through small escalations in paranormal activity as ordinary people are presented with the unfathomable, here the victims remain vague caricatures. The lack of any kind of skepticism renders the whole thing an absolute farce.

After being quickly brought up to speed on the presence of the demon trapped in the Warren household, we are transported to Romania in 1952. Two nuns are in a darkened convent basement and speak of an immeasurable evil. The mother superior enters a dark room and the door ominously reads “God Ends Here.” By the end of the sequence, both women will be dead. Upon hearing that a nun was found hanging outside the convent, the Vatican sends Father Burke (Demián Bichir) and a novitiate, Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga, Vera Farmiga’s younger sister), to investigate whether the land remains holy.

Religious horror is a very tricky thing to pull off. The issue of faith is a heavy and complicated topic to treat offhandedly. Catholicism, with its ritualistic obsessions and horrifying relics, needs to be rooted in either a strong-held belief or a morbid fascination. From the onset, the film doesn’t seem very rooted in any of that. The love of God should come across as strongly as the fear of demons. It doesn’t, creating a strong imbalance in the film’s fight of good versus evil.

This is exacerbated by the costuming and many of the supporting nun performances. Aside from a veiled Mother Superior and Sister Irene, all the other female characters feel like they’re playing dress-up. We have little sense of who they are, why they’re there and what they believe in. We don’t get to know them and they are difficult to distinguish from each other. Their conviction, their devotion and their fear feel pale and unconvincing. There is a twist that later on sheds light on why this is, but it shouldn’t be an excuse for poorly written characters.

While the other Conjuring films also rely on jump scares, these aren’t even particularly jumpy. The titular nun is undeniably haunting: the design of her make-up and how she is presented in the film inspires a primal rejection of her presence, but it just isn’t enough. The story that kinda bounces around from one weird set piece to another, with plot holes aplenty, is completely ineffective in building a sense of danger or fear. The film’s third act is utter nonsense, though it might have been effective if we had any sense of conviction or religiosity from what preceded it. As a horror movie, The Nun is completely flaccid.

Other little details similarly detract from the film. A character named Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet) serves as a village guide and I suppose eye-candy for thirsty man-lusters in the crowd. He is also meant to be French-Canadian, a vague enough term to excuse his awful accent that resembles nothing I’ve ever heard in Quebec, New Brunswick or Manitoba. The actor, who is Belgian, feels like a convenient addition to the story to spice things up and to offer convenient outs for each time the screenwriters have written themselves into a corner. His flirtatious cockiness is tiring and grating. Why is he in this movie aside from a small, weird thread to tie The Nun to the first Conjuring film?

More than anything else, The Nun is just meh. It’s not particularly awful but is certainly not good. It’s a middle of the road horror that is tolerable and easily forgotten. While certainly better than the first Annabelle film, it is firmly at the bottom of the pack of the Conjuring franchise. ■

The Nun opens in theatres on Friday, Sept. 7. Watch the trailer here: